June 20, 2009

Where Is This Place That We Are Only Screaming To the World With Our Silence?

This place is Iran, a country on the cusp of possibly an even larger-scale violent crackdown than as of this hour (writing Saturday mid-afternoon, New York time), another revolution, or some alternative denouement unknown to us at this hour. With the howling cries of ‘Allah-o-akbar’ in the background, in a YouTubed video reportedly made Friday evening in Iran (via The Lede) the subject caption above is spoken by what sounds like a young female narrator (at the 1:35 mark). A hauntingly beautiful and arresting line--one which she breaks into tears uttering—seems to distill much of the spirit of the ‘silent’ protests of the Moussavi movement.

How can we not fail to be moved by her achingly sincere yearnings? How can our conscience not demand something be done? After all, aren’t these ardent cries of help aimed squarely at us here, meaning leading players in the international community? And then now this Saturday we are seeing the first flare-ups of more wide-spread and protracted anti-demonstration crackdowns. Via Andrew, another heart-wrenching YouTube (if in far more direct, brutish vein) here:

Of course we are deeply repulsed and outraged at this senseless and cruel violence. And so is it any surprise there is something of a zeitgeist increasingly taking root (accelerated of course by Ayatollah Khamenei’s deeply disappointing speech yesterday) that something need be done by these United States? That somehow President Obama himself needs to ‘step up’, meaning, say and do more?

For example, and as if on cue, the Washington Post allowed for a dual-pronged assault at the supposedly callous Obamaian realism, featuring Charles Krauthammer and Paul Wolfowitz. Meantime, youthful apparatchiks from the Dubya administration, painfully naïve but positively brimming with self-importance, counsel varied initiatives that need be undertaken in the pitiable, yellow-press editorial pages of the WSJ. There are saner, more sophisticated voices counseling for more action too, however. Roger Cohen, with typical passion and elegance, demands same here. And one senses that Andrew Sullivan, intensely enmeshed in his nonpareil coverage of the ongoing events in Iran, is nearing a breaking point, despite his wise disparagement of the reckless policy prescriptions of the incorrigible neo-conservatives that Fred Hiatt publishes with great gusto (Mr. Hiatt risks increasingly appearing rather the sheepish lap-dog of late, whether the unseemly defenestration of a notable blogger at that paper—interestingly shortly after this very blogger, the well regarded Dan Froomkin, raised Mr. Krauthammer’s ire--or the tiresomely repetitive neo-con boilerplate he allows be published with abandon in his opinion pages).

I mean, what can one say about Charles Krauthammer that hasn’t been already, a mendacious ideologue who writes with the assured certainty of a zealot? From his op-ed: “All hangs in the balance. The Khamenei regime is deciding whether to do a Tiananmen. And what side is the Obama administration taking? None.” What does Mr. Krauthammer suggest we do? Send in the dough-boys into Enghelab Square? He wants fire and brim-stone and really, he is a parody of some vague notion of Schumpeterian creative destruction, roll the dice, and just hope the brown-skins from Beirut to Lahore sort it out OK (and always in a manner befitting right-Likudnik conceptions of Israel’s security, of course, ironically actually serving to weaken Tel Aviv).

Mr. Wolfowitz himself has always been more subtle, and actually has been a policy-maker, rather than a perennial back-seat driver pissing on the pratfalls of those who must govern, rather than merely turn out a column a couple times a week or stare lugubriously into a Fox Studio camera to spoon-feed a wildly credulous audience rife with ignoramuses. But for his part, it must be said, Mr. Wolfowitz is very selective in describing some of his public service as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under George Schultz, where he pushed for stronger condemnations of the Marcos regime at the time (Update: Matt Steinglass has more worth reading on the Wolfowitz/Philippines angle). It is almost as if he is engaging in revisionist burnishing of his own background, taking the Iran events as convenient launching pad, and omitting some of the (arguably more) relevant take-aways of his more immediate professional past. He writes:

No two situations are identical. But the reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a "no comment" option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment -- a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo. It would be a cruel irony if, in an effort to avoid imposing democracy, the United States were to tip the scale toward dictators who impose their will on people struggling for freedom. And if we appear so desperate for negotiations that we will abandon those who support our principles, we weaken our own negotiating hand.

Mr. Wolfowitz can play pretend this is soi disant about desperation to preserve negotiations. But, of course, this is rather about the screamingly obvious fact that were Obama to wade into this domestic fire-storm by too nakedly taking sides, say cheerleading Moussavi, it would represent the immediate death-knell of this movement. Veteran diplomats like Henry Kissinger get this (having recently complimented Obama on his handling of the situation), as do other distinguished foreign policy practitioners of the right like Richard Lugar and Dick Armitage. But not Mr. Wolfowitz, still the noble warrior on behalf of “freedom” after all these years. Of course, nothing if not clever, he goes on:

That does not mean that we need to pick sides in an Iranian election or claim to know its result. Obama could send a powerful message simply by placing his enormous personal prestige behind the peaceful conduct of the demonstrators and their demand for reform -- exactly the kind of peaceful, democratic change that he praised in his speech in Cairo.

But these are weasel-words. Obama has more or less already lauded the courage of the protestors. Tell us Mr. Wolfowitz, what exactly you’d like said, and how, rather than airily condemn Obama’s inaction? If not, this op-ed lacks any substance, and is more feel-good nostrum, I'm afraid. Or, better yet, recalling recent inglorious pass-throughs at the World Bank and as Rumsfeld’s Deputy, Mr. Wolfowitz might consider staying on the side-lines more, lest such quotes spring too easily back to mind, ’03 vintage to a House Committee:

There has been a good deal of comment - some of it quite outlandish - about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq. Some of the higher end predictions we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark. It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army - hard to imagine.

Wildly off the mark indeed, as are Mr. Wolfowitz’s Iran musings half a decade on today.

Instead what is very clear to most sane observers is Persia’s long history of being deeply skeptical, at best, of foreign involvement in its polity given, as the Economist puts it this week, that she was “buffeted between imperial rivals—Russian, Turkish, British and American—for more than a century”. Add to this the perennial Sunni-Shi’a rivalries of the region, closer to fever-pitch post the Iraq fiasco, that feed an ongoing sense of Iranian isolation to their West in a predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East, manifested too by Iran’s own long war with Iraq. Then there is the sense of encirclement with U.S. troops in the tens and hundreds of thousands on Iran’s Western and Eastern borders, with all the loose talk of regime change to boot emitting from Washington for years, and with memories of the U.S. role in the Mossadegh coup hugely fresh in the national consciousness of almost all Iranians still.

Taking this all in, is it not something of a total no-brainer to conclude Obama is right to be prancing somewhat delicately here and not interjecting himself, and this country, more full-square into the ongoing tumult? What a gift the Supreme Leader (yes Mr. Krauthammer, that is his title), to the Basij, to other reactionary elements, were Obama to proclaim that Moussavi was America’s candidate, and that we are firmly pitching our tent alongside his (make no mistake, despite attempting to elide this, this is what some of the neo-cons, at least those who purport to give a damn about the Iranian people—unlike the Ahmadi-Nejad cheer-leaders preferring a simple narrative to get to ‘bombs away’ asap—are essentially advocating). How much more quickly and easily would Moussavi and Co. be tarred foreign agents, with a possibly more gruesome crackdown by emboldened reactionaries likely resulting!

Apart from the neo-cons, there are more refined, sensitive voices like George Packer and the aforementioned Roger Cohen who are, and not to pigeon-hole, commenting arguably from something more of a ‘liberal hawk’ vantage point. Mr. Cohen writes:

A man holds his mobile phone up to me: footage of a man with his head blown off last Monday. A man, 28, whispers: “The government will use more violence, but some of us have to make the sacrifice.”

Another whisper: “Where are you from?” When I say the United States, he says: “Please give our regards to freedom.”

Which brings me to President Barack Obama, who said in his inaugural speech: “Those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Seldom was a fist more clenched than in the ramming-through of this election result. Deceit and the attempted silencing of dissent are now Iran’s everyday currency. In this city of whispers one of the whispers now is: Where is Obama?

The president has been right to tread carefully, given poisonous American-Iranian history, but has erred on the side of caution. He sounds like a man rehearsing prepared lines rather than the leader of the free world. A stronger condemnation of the violence and repression is needed, despite Khamenei’s warnings. Obama should also rectify his erroneous equating, from the U.S. national security perspective, of Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.

Ahmadinejad is Iran’s Mr. Nuclear. He has rapidly advanced the program and, through preaching in every village mosque, successfully likened it to the nationalization of the oil industry as an assertion of Iranian nationalism. By contrast, Moussavi has not abjured the program, but has attacked Ahmadinejad’s “adventurist” and “delusional” foreign policy. These are essential distinctions.

Obama should think hard about whether this ballot-box putsch is not precisely about giving Ahmadinejad and his military-industrial coterie four more years to usher Iran at least to virtual nuclear-power status. He should also think hard about the differences in character: Ahmadinejad is volatile and headstrong, the interlocutor from hell, while Moussavi is steady and measured.

Shrugging away these distinctions like a dispassionate professor at a time when people are dying in the streets of Iran is no way to honor this phrase in his Inaugural Address: “Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”

I admire Mr. Cohen and I can only imagine how one’s heart must stir reporting from the ground in Teheran these past weeks. But I must dissent from this caricature-like portrayal of an almost hapless, Adlai Stevenson like Obama speaking ineffective, academic-sounding sweet nothings from the sidelines. Nor was I as outraged by Obama mentioning that Moussavi’s policies—particularly on aspects of international policy to include the nuclear dossier—might not be hugely different than Ahmadi-Nejad's. Mr. Cohen can describe Ahmadi-Nejad as “Mr. Nuclear”, but Mr. Moussavi was essentially present at the creation of that program, and will not simply agree to junk Iran’s nuclear program, far from it. Indeed, he would arguably find it harder to make significant concessions here than Ahmadi-Nejad, with many hard-line clerics and others badgering him for any concessions from his right. And at the end of day, unless we are literally living a revolution as I write this that will unseat the Supreme Leader himself, let us recall he is ultimately the man who makes decisions on matters of maximal import like the nuclear issue. All this said, of course I would prefer Moussavi in power, the atmospherics surrounding the substance of the negotiations would improve, and this is not negligible. And to have an end to the noxious Holocaust questioning by Ahmadi-Nejad would certainly be very welcome. Not least, the people in Iran would have renewed hope for their future on myriad levels regarding the domestic policy front. But again, to side too openly with Moussavi is only to help the more reactionary elements!

Last, in comments to my own earlier post on Iran, there is a commenter who advocates more action, but more shrewdly, more here from a realist posture. This is perhaps the most compelling commentary I’ve seen advocating for a more proactive U.S. stance (though ultimately I remain unconvinced):

The Obama administration may not be able to prevent any of this. What it can do is take advantage of the political problems the Iranian regime has brought on itself. This doesn't just mean deploring violence and expressing admiration for large peaceful demonstrations. It should also mean pointing out the things that helped make undermine Ahmedinejad domestic popularity -- for example, his incompetence in managing economic policy -- and which America had nothing to do with. It should mean noting the divisions among senior Iranian clerics, some of whom were major figures in the revolution and who have called the election results illegitimate. It should above all mean depicting Iran's ruling powers as the people seeking trouble inside Iran and out. A month ago this would have been impossible. Right now it's imperative. There is some risk in the current situation for the United States, but there is more opportunity. A regime hostile to this country has put the ball on the ground; it's fine to look around long enough to figure out where the ball is, but the Obama administration needs to pick the damned thing up.

But I ask this commenter, what will our highlighting “divisions among senior Iranian clerics” do for the protestors on the ground, and the larger reform movement? Or even remonstrating Ahmadi-Nejad for having an incompetent economic policy (we here in the U.S. are running a spectacular one, of course!). And what of this commenter’s contention that: “(i)t should above all mean depicting Iran's ruling powers as the people seeking trouble inside Iran and out.” Haven’t we been doing this, already, for years and years, indeed, a score and half? And what a wondrous policy it has been, highly effective too! So I’m happy to “figure out where the ball is”, and “pick the damned thing up”, but in what specific manner, and to what specific ends?

At the end of the day there are issues of major national import, to include the Arab-Israeli peace process (see Hamas/Hezbollah), the nuclear issue, Iraq, Afghanistan, and more, that we need to discuss with the Islamic Republic of Iran. I ask you, can we afford to put aside any dialogue for another four long years? If Ahmadi-Nejad prevails, and we engage in a a strong, sustained condemnation of this regime, won’t we risk essentially closing the door to any discussions, and thereafter, essentially being on a war-footing? Is this good for us? For the Iranian people? For the region? The world? True, the carnage could reach such proportion we conclude a major suspension of possible talks is in order. As of this hour, we are all taking in the already grotesque, and possibly growing carnage in Iran. We are deeply repulsed and saddened, but we must exert caution admist these horrific events.

Meantime, some Europeans, notably the French perhaps most stridently so far, are screaming from the roof-tops about the election (which, hate to say and still at this late hour, none of us, I don't think, know for absolutely sure was rigged, or if so, to what extent), but as Philip Stephens points out in the FT, the Europeans are of course chomping at the bit in “inverse proportion to their willingness to act”, given the ultimate fecklessness we are drearily accustomed to when it comes to EU foreign policy, despite the frequent, merrily entertaining show-boating. Congress too is in a brewing tizzy, passing resolutions as a matter of great urgency (was it Molly Ivins who once quipped she could always tell when the Texas legislature was in session because every village in the state reported its idiot missing?). None of this hapless jaw-boning is surprising, of course, but it's worth noting only to point out none of it is helping the protestors on the ground any, and could yet come to hurt them.

No matter. As the blood flows in the streets of Teheran, the pressure will continue to build on the Obama Administration to do something more. Make no mistake, if a Tiananmen style crackdown ensues, we must condemn it, and loudly. We must reappraise the timing and manner of going forward negotiations. Iran policy will need to be re-calibrated on multiple fronts. And I will be even less hopeful for any going forward diplomatic successes, with an increasingly sclerotic, repressive, insecure regime hanging on now well beyond its time. But we should not be, in a fit of ennobled but deeply misguided passion, engaging in actions like having President Obama directly contact Moussavi, or delivering a taped message to the Iranian people, and so on. For these actions will be turned on the backs of the people like the young woman massacred in cold blood today, and in short order. While those here advocating something be done might feel morally superior as they spout such prescriptions from the comforts of far-away New York and Washington, the greater blood likely to be spilled should such policy routes be followed will be on their conscience, not those of us counseling against such shallow recklessness masquerading as plausible foreign policy.

Last, to answer this tortured woman’s hauntingly beautiful query which is the subject line of this post, ‘where is this place that we are only screaming to the world with our silence’? It is, to be sure, a horrible place tonight, but let her and us seek some solace in knowing that the behavior of the ruling Mullahs today will ultimately likely help precipitate the death of this regime, if not immediately, with the passage of some time. And, ironic and hard to accept during this emotional time as it may be, we will hasten that time likely by doing less, rather than more. Again, an edict to keep in mind here: first, do no harm. The President, I believe, understands this. Hopefully more of his fairer critics will too in the coming days, which will be highly charged ones, I know.

MORE: My quick takes on Obama's statement here.

Posted by Gregory at June 20, 2009 04:21 PM


Most convincing argument against Obama's characteristically timid response to whats going on in Iran.

Posted by: gabriel at June 20, 2009 05:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Pretty much on point. Well done.

Posted by: mattw at June 20, 2009 05:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Are we talking about the same Congress-folk & pundits who rail against the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, contending that she will make decisions based on feelings instead of careful deliberation? Granted we aren't talking about a legal case, but the situation in Iran requires the consideration of all consequences, not gut reaction. I haven't read or heard an interview of an Iranian who thinks President Obama should go beyond his current stance. What I have heard them say is that stronger statements from the President would be counterproductive, throwing raw meat to the current regime to use against the Iranian people. Just because something feels right doesn't make it right.

As citizens we are free to go much further with our support, but the government, and particularly the President, bears a different responsibility.

Posted by: aimzzz at June 20, 2009 06:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"For these actions will be turned on the backs of the people like the young woman massacred in cold blood today, and in short order."

Sorry, but I don't think things could get much worse for the young woman who has apparently elicited such sympathy from you. It's hard to imagine how you define a Tiananmen "style" crackdown, if you're still waiting around to see if one "ensues." The world is suddenly filled with newly minted experts on Iran -- each one as tendentious as the next, on both right and left.

Posted by: JMHanes at June 20, 2009 08:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Swarm Theory will handle this since you wear the panties of the intellectual elite that want prognosticate and ponder rather than defend and save.

Enjoy your mocha latte in the morning.

Posted by: Jeff Barea at June 20, 2009 11:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Look at these photos:


There is something very large going on here and we are on the wrong side. Greg, it is good to see you back at it. I don't agree with you on this one. What started as a protest against election irregularities has morphed into an attack on the regime with the potential for revolutionary change. If the army or the Rev. Guards changes sides, it is all but over. If successful, this is a game changer in the Middle East. The Tweets say that Hamas operatives and Hezbollah foot soldiers are the enforcers in the streets of Tehran. If that is true, Obama's approach is in tatters. If Ahmedinejad ends up as the president, he will have little or no legitimacy. We have to be on the side of freedom and liberty. We have always been so. The audacity of hope, I presume.


Posted by: Michael Pecherer at June 21, 2009 12:33 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So far, I believe that President Obama has been generally correct in guiding our response to the current crisis in Iran. What I do not understand is why our mainstream media continues to promote the opinions of ideologues such as Krauthammer and Wofowitz as if they have been a consistent source of enlightened ideas in the past. Have all our mass media mavens decided to make a run for the authoritarian market at the same time? For most of us, there is no comfort in a familiar face that is wrong all the time.

Posted by: Mark Williams at June 21, 2009 01:07 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Suck on this Khamenei...

Amongst the greatest absurdities that consume mankind is governance by divine degree. That form of control is a pox on truth and plague on reason. When it doesn't destroy hope, it
ruins inspiration. Were the manner of rule not so contemptible in practice, it would be laughable in spirit. Both oppressors and oppressed indulge the act and vouchsafe its temper. Its abilty to survive simply boggles the mind, but boggled minds sometimes explain why it, like insanity, survives.

Still, more reasons for its endurance abound. Whether from tradition and custom, or from fear and futility, no age has managed to escape it and few cultures have managed to elude it. Chief amongst these reasons for divine degree's lasting breath are guile and pretense or, said better, the art of allowing a thing empty to assume a pose of worth. We see the same ruse in the more commonplace calculus of fool's gold, magic, and religion-and, too, in the very person who savors such things (who allthemore becomes a charade upon himself than he does upon the object).

You, "Supreme Leader" (itself a sui generis appellation as ridiculous as any man who would dare wear it), afford us a glance at how supreme the absurdity can become. The world stands witness, just as certain truths must be ceded. Your flirtations with guile are enough to assail the eye just less than they assail the mind. Everywhere in your church, your streets, and your kingdom, the house of cards you have built-this bogus authority by degree-blows away with each lie that drips from your lips. Your friends now doubt you and your enemies now distrust you. Men and women that have long condoned your regime's artifice, merely as a token of their respect for a settled homeland and its potential, have now grown weary of your deepening deceits.

It is one thing for a society to countenance a mistake but quite another to catalogue malevolence. Time for the ledger to come clean. The sole support you now own arises from your friendship with dishonesty, and from those folks desperate enough to delude themselves. For every mullah and guardian that you count in your off-key choir, ten times the voices ring in opposition. The sounds you hear are the symphony of change. Don't dare adjust the volume again. And if the numbers in defiance have yet to swell to make you sweat, recall that the echos of truth will ring in eternity.

Posted by: resh at June 21, 2009 01:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't know what Greg thinks he is doing by quoting commenters on this site. How can he know who they are or where they've been? Does he seriously think any of them are an order of magnitude smarter about foreign policy than people who have spent a lifetime grooming themselves to look as if they should be doing foreign policy? He really should exercise caution, caution, and ever more caution, as Napoleon urged. Originally, I mean, before his staff reminded him he needed to produce more colorful quotes, and to speak in French to avoid the appearance of being influenced too much by the Americans.

Anyway, the major problem with walking on eggshells is that eggshells usually break under your feet no matter how careful you are. The bigger you are, the more likely this is to be true, and the United States is pretty big. America's ultimate objective with respect to Iran is to have it become a normal country, with an economy connected with the world economy, no designs on the territory or internal politics of its neighbors, a force for peace and stability in the region and beyond rather than an impediment to both. There is no straight line from where Iran has been for the last 30 years to this destination, but possibilities have opened in the past week that should be explored.

Now, I was going to say that you can't explore anything by sitting mute in a corner, but President Obama's statement today -- which used language resembling the Bidenese dialect of English, something I thought interesting -- has moved us a little past that. It was a statement that put him and his administration on record in favor of ideas the Iranians now in the streets are presumed also to favor, something he needed to do. He has yet to be as forceful or specific as I think he ought to be on certain points. Highlighting divisions among Iranian mullahs is a way station on the path to making clear the American government has no interest in seeing the Islamic Republic become an un-Islamic Republic; making public note of the Iranians who have objected to Ahmedinejad's economic incompetence can be a way of suggesting that Iran's economic isolation is something we'd prefer to change under the right circumstances, and so on.

But Obama is not just sitting inert in response to changing events, and has shown some sign of recognizing that the gap opening between the Iranian government and an Iranian public that objects to that government's course of action is something we can use to advantage. Does that mean increasing the difficulties facing Khatami and Ahmedinejad? Sure it does. Both men have proclaimed their hostility to America for years (in Khatami's case, for decades), and I take them at their word; more to the point, hostility to the United States is a major component of their political position within Iran, and there is no evidence this will ever change. I therefore expect them to engage in productive negotiations on any significant issue only if they feel they have no choice. If they feel this way, hurt feelings over our having objected to an Iranian Tiananmen won't keep negotiations from happening; if they don't, we'll earn no goodwill by keeping silent.

The element of risk in this area seems considerably less to me than it does to other observers. The other major area of risk, often commented on with fear and trembling, is that Iranians would react to American statements on events in their country by recalling Mossadegh and Savak and all the rest of it; we'd be charged with meddling, being the agents of the Zionist world conspiracy and so forth. These charges are of course being leveled at the United States anyway; variants of them have indeed been hurled at us since the Age of Disco. I could be wrong about this -- the Iranian government's ban on Western media reporting on the elections and their aftermath clouds my view as much as anyone else's -- but it doesn't look as if most of the Iranian public is paying attention anymore. They are more interested in what their own government is up to than what ours is, let alone what ours may have done long before most Iranians today were born.

All this does somewhat beg the question of what end is served by our looking to make difficulties for declared enemies of the United States. The answer to that question is, frankly, self-evident to me. For the sake of completeness, though, let's imagine a contingency in which the power structure in Iran did change as a result of what's been set in motion by recent events. We have to prepare for that, too. One way, and I think the best way, is to lay down a foundation of strong American sympathy with the most basic desires of the anti-government protesters in Iran right now: an honest vote, an end to arbitrary government violence, a government that treats the Iranian population with respect as citizens rather than subjects. There's no guarantee that such a foundation will eventually support a structure of Iranian-American friendship and amicable official relations, but we have to start somewhere.

Posted by: Zathras at June 21, 2009 01:50 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Edit note:
Degree = decree. Oops.

Posted by: resh at June 21, 2009 03:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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